OK, first a little bit of plot summary:
The Chacko family is one with a tragic past. Unni Chacko, a very talented cartoonist, is only 17 years old when he falls from the family’s third floor balcony. Reality has it that he didn’t just fall — he jumped.
Flash forward three years to Ousep Chacko, a washed up, old journalist who staggers home every night and yells drunken slurs for the whole block to hear. Depending on your psychological outlook, he may seem like a father who doesn’t care or a father who cares deeply. Nevertheless, when he receives a long-lost comic that Unni had mailed to an unknown recipient the day “he did what he did,” Ousep starts questioning everyone in Unni’s mysterious life in an attempt to answer the riddle of his son’s death.
Among the cast of characters in the novel are Mariamma and Thoma Chacko. Mariamma spends her days praying, telling the walls her grouses with people who have treated her badly and plotting the death of her husband — she’s patient enough to have the cholesterol kill him. And then there’s Thoma, the younger brother who feels lost but forever loyal to his dear brother, and he is hopelessly in love with the girl next door.
Now, on to brass tacks:
This is Manu Joseph’s second novel, the first being the critically acclaimed “Serious Men.” It combines things I hold near and dear: family drama, psychology/philosophy and social satire. I greatly appreciate the amount of research Joseph did on the psychological conditions and philosophical views, which play heavily in the character development. There are moments of dark humor where even though the situation is horrendous, I couldn’t help but actually laugh out loud — both because they are funny in a genuine way and funny in a “sad-but-true” relatability.
If I were to ever live tweet a book (I should make that a thing), this would be a perfect candidate. From the very beginning I found this book to be both enticing and relatable. If you, like me, have a somewhat twisted view on society and philosophy, you’ll feel both drawn to and repulsed by Unni. Several times in the first half of the book I found myself thinking, “I wish I could know this kid.” But, as Ousep dove deeper into his son’s mysterious past, Joseph pushed me away from Unni by showing me that even the brightest recollections have a dark side.
Happiness plays such a big role in the novel. The characters are either miserable, looking for happiness, or happy, when its socially unacceptable. Unni is a naturally happy person who even believes that happiness is unavoidable. But he is also constantly plagued with philosophical missions to find the truth in world, or near the end of his life, have others see the truth. Folie-a-deux, the folly of two, also played a role, not only in Unni’s life but also in the reading of the novel. Unni’s, and others, ideas about life, happiness and truth were hypnotic. I almost started believing them myself, so its not surprising that Unni could control so many people.
I feel myself rambling at this point so I’m going to bring this review to a close. Overall, I think Joseph is a very powerful storyteller and that “The Illicit Happiness of Other People” is provocative enough to make me not put it down for hours at a time. I will definitely be adding “Serious Men” to a list of to-reads in the future.
P.S. I’m not sure how much of this is a spoiler, but I apologize if it is. Also, I tend to follow AP Style in my writing, so that’s why I put book titles in quotes instead of underlined or italicized (hopefully this prevents complaints).